If you look beyond aruba’s “sun, sea, beach” image, you will find a versatile island that is not just caught in one tropical slogan. Not without reason, the Caribbean island is one of the Best in Travel destinations of 2020 – discover the deep waters beyond the perfect beaches, rugged unspoiled natural beauty and a quirky, colourful community
The artistic city
Encountering a special mural while walking through an unknown city feels a bit like finding a hidden treasure. This one feels the same; among the undepic houses along the Van Renselaerstraat in San Nicolas, a burst of colours suddenly pops into view. Painted playing cards tumble along the wall but don’t touch the pavement, a boy with his eyes holding them upright. I walk over there to take a closer look at the artwork and then I see it: it is literally a house of cards. Every surface of the building has been utilised, from the rusty window frames to the flat roof.
It turns out to be just the beginning of an unexpectedly colorful walk. Half the centre of the small town serves as canvas, from prominent corner houses to stray crumbling walls at a car park. San Nicolas exudes street art. “It’s hard to imagine, but a few years ago the city was still a ghost town,” says Leon Bérénos, a familiar face in the local art scene, who experienced his city’s transformation from the beginning.
“Art brought San Nicolas back to life,” leon says, and he spreads his arms. With his orange trousers and matching hat, the born and bred Aruban fits perfectly with his surroundings, which he leads me through with an enthusiastic pace. Here and there an artist is working on an impressive work of art, in other places paintings are just being removed to make way for the work of a new artist. ‘In a few months it will be time for the Aruba Art Fair,’ leon says delightedly. The art festival was first organized in 2016 and was a major boost to the rebirth of the abandoned city. ‘Every year artists from all over the world come to Aruba to make street art, which is then viewed by thousands of art lovers!’
On the corner of a street we stop at a simple building with subtle art decot, but what is especially striking is the giant blue iguana painted on it. He seems almost three-dimensional, quietly leaning on a window that seems to protrude from the building with a perspective trick. ‘Art also plays a social and connecting role in San Nicolas,’ leon says as he gestures towards the iguana. ‘This is where elderly people live who didn’t see many people, but since street art they have a lot more claim.’ He then turns to the building across the street, with a colorful bird turning lighter and more translucent towards its tail. “The fading parakeet,” he explains. “This bird was very common here on the island, but is now slowly dying out.”
Art penetrates into the DNA of San Nicolas, from the flamingo-painted art shop Cosecha, where dozens of Aruban artists can sell their work, to the colourful public benches that have been mosaiced by young prisoners. As we walk through the city, Leon is greeted from left and right and makes happy talk with everyone; the colourful streets sizzle with warmth and creativity. It is clear: life in San Nicolas has returned.
The unspoilt landscape
It is early in the morning and the sun is still low over Arikok National Park. Cacti cast long shadows over the dry hills; The landscape is almost a bit like Arizona. I stand under a canopy of the newly completed Visitor Center of the national park, where I meet park ranger Julio Beaujon. He’s going into me for the Aruban wilderness.
‘An important role of the park is education,’ says Julio, as he steps on. ‘We talk about the special nature of the island and promote sustainability and conservation.’ The national park covers almost 20 percent of the island and it shows a completely different picture of Aruba than the tropical scenes along the coast. If you take a closer look, you will find an endless variety of flora and fauna. ‘There are all kinds of birds, insects and snakes in the park,’ says Julio. ‘And it’s full of medicinal plants – aloe vera for example.’ He stops at a large specimen and inspects it critically. ‘Once upon a time, aloe vera was one of the island’s most important exports.’
It’s almost like a walk through Aruba before the European interference; completely untethered, you hardly encounter anyone between the volcanic rock and the arid green, and here and there there are even traces of the Caquetío to be found. The indigenous people lived here for some 500 years when in 1499 the first Europeans – the Spaniards Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda – reached the island. “The Caquetío left paintings scattered all over the island,” says Julio, as he leads me to a prominent basal pride in the shadow of high vegetation. Red and brown geometric figures adorn the jagged rock, on which the hooves of wild goats clatter on top. It is one of a handful of places where the paintings can be found; the most beautiful specimens are located in the Fountain Cave, more to the east of the park. “In the centuries of colonization, the people have increasingly disappeared, but in Arikok their legacy is preserved.”
Vast hills with a basal pride and dividivi tree give way to forests full of cacti; especially many long single trunks, wide as columns, and “candelabro” cacti, which resemble a kind of prickly candlesticks. They suck up all the water from the ground, until they become top-heavy and pour inexorably to earth. “The locals know: if you hear it cracking here, you have to run,” julio says. He explains that the cacti in the park can live to be more than a hundred years old. ‘Recently, one of more than 150 years has fallen over. Somewhere a shame, but that’s how nature works.’
Towards the end of the walking tour, the sun is high in the cloudless sky and the characteristic Aruban heat is increasing. The path descends slowly, back to the Visitor Center, visible in the distance like a wooden temple among desert-like greenery. Suddenly Julio stops suddenly. He points to a candelabro cactus, where at the very top there are two birds of prey resting, peering over the Aruban landscape. “These are crested carara,” says Julio, elated. ‘You don’t see them flying around very often – and certainly not just the two of them!’ His enthusiasm betrays the magic of this place, which surprises even the park ranger after decades.
The wonders in the water
At a secluded tuft of beach, in the shade of muddled vegetation and palms, guide RJ stands up to his waist in the water as he pulls a striking vessel into the water. It is a stair kayak, with which I will move myself mostly dry and at least in one piece over the water. Even out of the sun the water is crystal clear, little fish shoot around my ankles as I make tents to get into the vessel. Actually, it’s like a pedalo, but in the form of a kayak and considerably more hydrodynamic. Once I’ve climbed in, RJ guides the kayak towards the sea and then deftly steps into his own.
“A stair kayak is ideal,” RJ says as he shoots forward. ‘By paddling with your feet instead of with your hands you can look around and enjoy the beautiful surroundings much easier!’ We kayak right through a marina, where I can’t avoid a clumsy but indelicitable collision with a docked sailing ship, and further along the coastline beyond the Spanish Lagoon. It is almost windless and the water reflects the sky like a mirror. RJ gestures to the jagged coast, where iguanas rest on the rocks in the sun, and the buildings that are just visible from the water above. “This is where I grew up, and I’ve been in these waters since I was a kid.” Then he bends his kayak to the horizon, where a small hut stands out in the middle of the water against the ubiquitous blue. “And that’s where we’re going to snorkel.”
The island is surrounded by such clear water that in many places it is not necessary to go far up the water to snorkel, but in this lagoon, along the south coast of the island, it is considerably quieter than at the snorkeling spots directly on the coast. The strip of mangrove forest that surrounds the lagoon also provides an ideal, sheltered habitat for tropical fish, which stay here until they are large enough to enter the open sea. “It’s like a fish nursery,” RJ jokes.
A cheeky pelican holds guard atop the covered jetty while RJ pulls out snorkels and briefly explains what the intention is. We start by snorkeling in the relatively shallow lagoon, where the water is calmer. Around the jetty, the seabed consists of white powder sand, which gives the water in the sunlight a great turquoise color. ‘But the places where the water is darker, there’s the coral,’ RJ explains. I slide a pair of goggles over my eyes and nose and descend a stairwell. Before I put my head under the water I just hear RJ’s last advice: ‘If you want to swim with fish, you have to swim like a fish.’
The underwater world, wobbly from above, is suddenly crystal clear; I feel like I’ve dived into another dimension. As I float, the sand beneath me quickly gives way to at first glance grey coral, but any acclimatization reveals an infinite seabed relief. If I float for a moment, the coral comes alive, like a giant underwater city – fish shoot in and out of their cottages, colourful baby fish seem to playfully chase each other, a school of blue-yellow doctor fish swims through the watery streets; If I look closely, I can see a stretched trumpet fish shooting in between. I’m just passing a beautiful piece of brain coral when RJ gives the underwater signal to get up. “How’s that going?” Ready for the open sea?” His goggles shine in the sun and he grins broadly as I nod. I dive enthusiastically again – curious about all the beauty aruba has even more to offer.
you can travel with the Aruba Tourism Authority